BFI Flipside 1960s Cult Films Part Three - Articles - Soundblab

BFI Flipside 1960s Cult Films Part Three

by Ian Johnston Rating: Release Date:

The BFI's Flipside label has surpassed itself yet again, re-releasing and beautifully restoring, on very high quality Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray discs, two classic late 1960s British cult films: Clive Donner's Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967) and Bronco Bullfrog (1969), directed by Barney Platts-Mills. Both feature films focus upon the timeless trials, joys and tribulations of the adolescent English teenager during the swinging 60s, but in very dissimilar styles.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, a lavish Technicolor coming-of-age comedy romp, set in the first British post-war town of Stevenage (the DVD includes an amusing 1971 documentary salutation to the numerous delights of living in the modern town sponsored by the Stevenage Development Corporation), is probably the more familiar picture. This is primarily because of the films soundtrack, provided by The Spencer Davis Group (who also appear in the movie playing at a Stevenage church 'rave') and the title theme song, composed and played by Steve Winwood's Traffic. The music is uniformly excellent and an original copy of the soundtrack LP commands high prices from record collectors today, but there is more to recommend the film than just the music.

Directed by Clive Donner (who filmed Harold Pinter's The Caretaker in 1963, starring Alan Bates and Donald Pleasence, and the 1965 Peter O'Toole/Peter Sellers farce What's New Pussycat?) and based upon Hunter Davis' J.D. Salinger inspired novel (Davis also provided the script), Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush follows grammar school sixth former Jamie McGregor (convincingly played by the likeable Barry Evans) in his attempt to lose his virginity and win the heart of his social 'better', Mary Gloucester (rising star Judy Geeson, with whom Evans was having a relationship at the time, adding conviction to their eventual coupling and naked cavorting at Grafham lake). Before lower-middle class "knicker obsessed" Jamie realises that he cannot handle no-holds barred promiscuity and open female liberation, he dates, among others, the very posh Caroline (the ravishing Angela Scoular, who in 1969 would play a Bond girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service). Caroline's wine and au pair loving father is played by the late, great Stevenage dweller Denholm Elliott. It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet and Doctors star Christopher Timothy also appears as Jamie's sexist mate, Spike. Criticism of the film has been harsh (the final line of the Time Out Film Guide review reads; "So charmless as to be almost unwatchable"), but this seems to overlook Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush's many merits. This is a film effectively tailor made for its young audience and beneath its ' fab mod gear' trappings (the fashions and colours are so garish that sunglasses could be worn to watch this pristine print) and the obvious influence of Richard Lester's films, Lewis Gilbert's Alfie and Antonioni's Blow Up, it does contain accurate social/class criticism which probably still holds true today. More importantly, the film conveys a sense of the promise and playful fun of the period (totally avoiding all the clichés of the British New Wave youth films made in the North of England) that seems almost inconceivable now.

Unfortunately for Barry Evans, his all too brief stardom mirrored the swift evaporation of the 60s dream. The Guildford born Barnardo's orphan, who had won a Gielgud scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama, was forever typecast as the smiling, young, carefree Jamie character. Evans found some success in the London Weekend Television series Doctor in the House, which ran for 28 episodes from 1969. However, work quickly dried up and in 1976 Evan's starred in the dim-witted sex comedy Adventures of a Taxi Driver. After a period on the dole he wrote to LWT with the stark message;" I'm still alive." The letter worked and he landed the lead role in the highly politically incorrect xenophobic comedy, Mind Your Language (1977-1979), in which the audience where invited to laugh at silly foreigners (and some sexy foreign 'dolly birds', including Ingmar Bergman's daughter, Anna) attempting to learn broken English, taught by Evan's hapless teacher, Jeremy Brown. Evan's eternal typecasting was now completely assured.

Soon, Evans was making his living not as an actor, but with great irony, as a taxi driver. Alcoholism ensued. After his taxi was reported stolen in February 1997, the unfortunate Evans was discovered dead on a sofa under mysterious circumstances. A sad, tragic end for a talented actor, who had come to represent, all too indelibly, the optimism of the 1960s.

Barney Platts-Mills' excellent Bronco Bullfrog, through only made two years after Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, is a completely different type of 1960s 'youth' film. Shot in black and white and clearly inspired by Italian neo-realism and the British Free Cinema documentary movement of the 1950s, the locale of Platts-Miles film is the harsh, unforgiving inner city landscape of Stratford in East London, featuring a cast of young non-professional local actors. The movie's story of thwarted romance, paltry crime and gang rivalry is actually drawn from the very lives of his 'non-actors' cast. Bronco Bullfrog also captures the look of the developing suedehead youth cult (boots, smart jackets, paisley shirts and long hair), derived from the more famous skinhead style, before it morphed into the 'smoothie' fashion of the early 1970s.

Platts-Mills had admired the work that the legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood (a 1968, 20 minute interview with Littlewood is an extra on the DVD) had instigated at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Having become increasingly tired of seeing her theatre vandalized and her patrons threatened, Littlewood, with help from local former Small Faces keyboardist Jimmy Winston, began to draw the street gangs out of the dark alleys and into highly productive improvisational theatre work shops. Platts-Mills realised that Littlewood's workshops with her young 'nutters' (the name the redoubtable theatre director gave to her errant young pupils) would be the perfect material for a documentary.

In 1968, Platts-Mills made the half an hour film Everybody's an Actor, Shakespeare Said, (included as an extra on the Flipside DVD) featuring the wayward young boys acting out many situations from their lives (run ins with the law, trouble at school and altercations with parents) and fantasies (the richest man in the world buying the Hilton on Park Lane). Though initially suspicious of the bohemian Platts-Mills, the suedeheads admired his anti-establishment attitude, the admittance to Pink Floyd gigs and consumption of potent hashish and LSD. It was at the nutters urging that Platts-Mills made a "proper film" featuring them and their experiences on the streets of the East End.

With much humour and compassion, Platts-Mills film focuses upon the plight of apprentice welder Del (a fantastic performance by Del Walker) and his young 15-year-old girlfriend Irene (Anne Gooding). Disaffected, bored and frustrated in their doomed attempts to start a life together, Del and Irene turn to Jo Saville aka Bronco Bullfrog (brilliantly embodied by Sam Shepherd). Bullfrog has just been released from borstal and looks set to be returning there very swiftly, but his 'carefree' lifestyle and flat filled with stolen goods holds great appeal to Del and Irene.

Made for about £18,000 and shot on 35mm, with the script based upon the life stories of the cast as told to scriptwriter Platts-Mills, Bronco Bullfrog carries a real sense of authority and authenticity. The sharp soundtrack by the post-Mod band The Audience gives further impact to Platts-Mills unadorned visuals and meandering narrative, which reflects the restrained existence of his characters. The maddening frustrations and dissatisfied aspirations of the urban working class teenage suedeheads that Platts-Mills depicts in Bronco Bullfrog are as relevant in 2010 as they were 40 years ago.

Ian O'Sullivan, the information officer of the BFI National Library, in his notes in the Bronco Bullfrog DVD booklet divulges that unfortunately none of Platts-Mills' cast went on to pursue a career in acting. Sam Shepherd works as a market porter and still lives in the area where the film was shot, while Del Walker left Stratford to live on the Isle of Wight. Sadly, Anne Gooding's plans for a modelling career did not transpire after the film and she died of a brain haemorrhage on a dance floor at the age of 50.

The outstanding Bronco Bullfrog is one 'lost' British film that is definitely worthy of rediscovery and has been well served by this diligently assembled BFI Flipside release. It offers stark evidence that many areas of the capital where far from swinging during the 60s.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and Bronco Bullfrog are both released on BFI Flipside Dual Format Editions on September 13 2010.

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